The Kalpak, properly called the “Ak Kalpak” (=”white Kalpak”), is a hat usually made from four panels of white felt with traditional patterns stitched into them as decoration. It is worn by males of all ages – especially in rural Kyrgyzstan – and is a symbol of the nation. (One writer has even written that “what the baseball cap is to the Americans, the Kalpak is to the Kyrgyz”.)
There are different styles of kalpak. They can all be folded flat for storage or carrying when not being worn. In some cases the brim may be turned up all the way around, and in some cases there is a cut in the brim so that a two-pointed “peak” can be formed. Plain white ones are often reserved for festivals and special occasions. Ones intended for everyday use may have a black ‘velvet’ lining.
The most common form of Kalpak is thought to resemble the shape of the mountain Khan Tengri.
It is said that in some of the earliest historical records of the region, there are references to a pointed hat worn by some of the peoples that inhabited the area – similar to the Kalpak. In Turkestan/Tajikistan there are some ancient cave paintings which also seem to depict this piece of headgear.
Even if it looks a little strange to western eyes, this headgear is also a practical item of clothing – keeping the head warm in winter and protecting from the heat in the summer.
In a region where hats are an important mark of “who you are” – they mark out the wearer as specifically Kyrgyz. In the troubled regions of the South, (for example in the Kyrgyz enclave of Barak – situated in Uzbek territory), some men wear two hats … one, a Kalpak, they wear at home and amongst their own people, and the other, a tupeteika (a skullcap worn by Uzbeks), they wear when the visit Uzbek dominated areas.
The kalpak is the “holiest” of national clothing for the Kyrgyz. It has “mysteries” that many say they can feel when they wear it – this ancient style of hat seems to connect the man wearing it with the history of his fathers and the destiny of his people.
Kyrgyz respect their kalpak. According to tradition:
- You must not kill a man with a kalpak on;
- Kalpaks can’t be put on the ground;
- Kalpaks are laid next to your head at night, never by your feet.
There are also many sayings connected with the headgear, such as:
- “If you lose your kalpak you lose your head”;
- “don’t trade your kalpak or you’ll trade your mind”;
- “Wear a kalpak and you won’t get sick, it is warm in winter, cool in summer “;
A kalpak and a chapan are often given as presents at a ‘toi’, (or family celebration), either from the guests to the host, or from the host to guests of honour.
There is also the “Arakchyn”, which used to be worn under the “kalpak”.
In addition, there were other forms of headgear – but the Kalpak has assumed a role as an essential part of the Kyrgyz National costume. In winter men would often wear fur caps – especially when riding in the mountains – and there were three traditional designs: “kashkar tebetey”, “telpek” and “tebetey”.